How Iran's true believers pass the torch
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Behind those front lines, 45 miles from the border, the cities of Ahvaz and Dezful claim stature as two that have produced hosts of martyrs – and those willing to follow in their footsteps.Skip to next paragraph
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In Ahvaz cemetery, banners carry portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and wartime chief, and Iran's current supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One banner reads: "Hussein is my guiding light, and the ark of my salvation." Another: "Martyrdom is the art of the men of God."
Some graves appear never to have been washed. Others receive constant care, like the dark slab for Sayed Ali Akbar Fatemehzadeh, who "attained the holy rank of martyrdom" at 17, according to the inscription.
"He was a great man, the nation owes him ... because if martyrs were not here, we would not have Iran," says Ali Akbar Khoshnazar, named after the martyr, a friend of his father. Ali Akbar, who is 18, came here alone, poured water over the stone, and prayed. "When I come here, my soul relaxes," says Mr. Khoshnazar, an electronics graduate who wears a silver religious bracelet. "My father says he was a spiritual person."
Indeed, the young martyr played an key role in the life of Khoshnazar's father, Gholamreza Khoshnazar. Early in the war, the father was 16 when he saw a 12-year-old guard with a heavy machine gun in his street. Uncomfortable that a boy was "guarding" him, he signed up for the volunteer Basiji force at the mosque.
The father and his friend Ali Akbar fought and studied in turns, and then were together in one offensive battle. Ali Akbar's unit left 30 minutes before Gholamreza's. "He was hit with a rocket and half his face was gone – that was a severe shock to me, because we really liked each other," recalls Gholamreza, a print-shop owner whose fist-length beard exhibits a plug of gray. "Then I promised God: If I was given a son, I would name him Ali Akbar."
Gholamreza survived, despite wounds that have left him widely scarred, and at one point "5 percent from death," he says.
"Our generation, we ... would go back to the war as soon as we could walk," he says. "When we were on the front, we would wake in the night, do our ablutions, and pray. The only thing we would ask of God was for the health of Imam Khomeini and the return of Imam Mahdi. It was a very holy spirit in those days."
But the price was high. Gholamreza flips through a worn photo album, damaged by water when he threw it into a river during a fit of trauma a couple years ago. The book – and his own sanity, Gholamreza admits – were saved by son Ali Akbar.
"Some of my friends here have become martyrs," says Gholamreza, pointing at snapshots of comrades riding on tanks, and in trenches, shooting their weapons.
Gholamreza pauses reverently over a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, given to his family during the war. And then a coin, stuck to the page with tape, that depicts the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, presented by a commander, who said it had come directly "from the Imam [Khomeini]."
"For me, a follower of Imam Khomeini ... it was my duty to be a martyr, to defend my country against people who wanted to destroy civilization," says Gholamreza. Then, he "was not so knowledgeable about martyrdom, and didn't know what a delicious fruit it is; it slipped from my grasp."
"But today, I would like to do the right thing ... and return to God," says Gholamreza. "I told my son what a good friend I have had [in martyr Ali Akbar], and naturally this love has been passed to my son, so he goes to the martyr and tells him his problems."
In a view widely shared here, Gholamreza says that Iran was able to repel Iraq and the "imperialistic powers [that] attacked us" – a reference to US and European support for Saddam Hussein – and will do so again if necessary.
"Muslims think this way: Our body is not ours, but God has lent it to us and he can take it whenever he wants," says Haji Khezeir Bavi, a veteran, as he prepared to board a bus to work as a "Rahian-e Nour" volunteer. "Why not satisfy God and die for a good cause?"
That thinking drove countless men to the front lines, says Mr. Bavi, who worked at the cemetery in Ahvaz for 12 years. After a burial, fellow fighters would say: " 'Keep a space for us, next to this one. We will be martyrs,' " recalls Bavi. "And one month later, their bodies would come."
The younger generation will be just as committed to battle today, says veteran Abdulrahman Esivand. "If our leader Ayatollah Khamenei calls for battle, you would still see 12-year-olds marching to war."